sad young boy

The Kids are Not All Right:
7 Steps to Make Your Home Their Safe Place

Peace at Home June 28, 2022

By Ruth E. Freeman, LCSW, David Hanscom, MD, and Aaron Weintraub,MS

The experts have declared a “pediatric mental health emergency.” Children and teens are more depressed, more anxious, more at risk of self-harm and suicide than ever before. Parents are feeling so overwhelmed that some researchers are calling it “parental burnout.” This is a perfect storm. Parents are struggling when kids need them the most and parents feel helpless to protect them. The good news is that the parent-child relationship is the most powerful mental health intervention available and the science of positive family relationships is out there.

What can parents do that will really help to protect kids’ mental health?

Make home a safe place. A really safe place. You might be thinking, What? Of course our home is a safe place. Think again.

Let’s start with some important brain biology – stay with us here:

  • We are designed to survive by recognizing threats to our safety. We actually can’t survive without that capacity, so we can’t and really don’t want to turn it off. When we perceive a threat, our bodies go into an uncomfortable state that we call “anxiety.” That discomfort drives us to do something about it. So far so good.
  • Before we go any further, let’s notice that parents’ brains often mistake children’s behavior – or more importantly our lack of control over children’s behavior – as a threat. This is almost always a mistaken perception, but you can’t tell your brain that when it’s in emergency mode. That part of your brain doesn’t actually “think” – it just “feels” and drives behavior.
  • What we tend to do when our brain perceives a threat, is generally not helpful – get angry toward ourselves and others, reach for substances to suppress the feeling, try to exert control over others, get intensely busy even when we are fatigued, ignore the feeling until it builds to an emotional outburst or physical symptoms, develop obsessive thought patterns that we can’t stop, and more…much more.
  • This state of anxiety is better understood as an “activated threat response,” which often reduces the activity in the thinking portion of our brain and increases activity in the emotions center, which can then turn into “fight, flight or freeze.” Lots of things happen in our bodies at that moment that would help us escape a tiger chasing us. However, if your brain is stuck in this state for long periods of time, these responses aren’t great ways to live a good life for you and those around you. Being stuck in emergency mode does harm to your body, your brain, and your family.
  • Most of us grew up in families with parents who were often in that activated threat response state. We then find that the families we create as adults trigger those early experiences. The partners and children we love are regularly the source of internal stress and without intervention, we will respond to that stress with anger, blame, irritability, withdrawal and other very unhelpful behaviors described above.
  • The uncomfortable activated threat response is stuck in the “on” position for many of us right now because of both our own family history and in response to what is going on in the world around us. This results in thoughts, feelings and behaviors which are harmful to your family as well as your body.

Few people wake up in the morning and think about the ways they can make their families miserable. Even those of us who really are making our families unhappy, don’t realize we’re doing so. We are too distracted by our internal distress to really notice. If you are in ongoing distress, you can only partially see the needs of those around you.

Take a moment. Can you see how this is true for you? 

A colleague who studies the literature about how parent-child relationships influence outcomes for kids has declared that the most important question we can ask our children is, “Do I make you nervous?” Another more biological version of this inquiry is to consider whether my behavior is triggering cortisol and adrenalin (stress hormones) in my child’s brain or dopamine and serotonin (the “happy” hormones that protect mental health). In reality, many children and even teens won’t be able to answer that question accurately for a lot of reasons, but it is a notion well worth considering as you go about your day.

Most importantly, you have choices. We invite you to apply some evidence-based strategies that will reduce the likelihood of your brain getting stuck in emergency mode and even when that happens, consider action steps to make your home a safe space and better protect your kids from mental health struggles.

  1. Tell yourself that nothing is more important than being your child’s calm center. Nothing. Start by finding a brain calming practice that works for you. This might be a particular breathing technique, visualizing a calm place, prayer, or other strategies. What’s important is that you practice the one that works for you at least 3-5 minutes each day so that it is easy to do when you feel that “activated threat response” coming on. And for some of us, this involves recognizing that threat response – if you are in that state often or chronically, you may need to back up and make sure you can tell the difference between calm/resting and stressed/threatened. 
  2. Don’t believe everything you think. Spend 10 minutes every day practicing expressive writing. It’s simple and there are over 1000 research papers documenting its effectiveness in reducing anxiety as well as other mental and physical difficulties. Take 5-15 minutes once or twice each day to write down your uncensored thoughts and feelings – write with total abandon and don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or anything else. Don’t judge or analyze what you wrote and don’t share it with others. As soon as your writing time is up, tear up the paper or destroy it in any way you wish. This helps change patterns in your brain and rewires your response to experiences that trigger your distress. Some people call it, “Write and rip.” Take better charge of your thoughts. This is an ideal way to stop over-reacting to children’s behavior or getting swamped with worries or anger. 
  3. Call it what it is. Many of us are so used to being “frustrated” that negative emotions become a baseline. We cannot perceive ourselves as angry. For us anger may seem like a normal state – especially if you are surrounded by friends, family members and others who feel the same way. When you are upset, you feel so right that you cannot imagine someone not seeing your viewpoint. However, your anger blocks you from seeing the perspective of others. This is particularly true when you are dealing with your children. Parents regularly snap at children and think it is ok. Regularly triggering our children’s “activated threat response” is not helpful to their mental health. Just because this parenting behavior is typical, and maybe you grew up with it, that doesn’t make it helpful or healthy for you or your child.  
  4. When you’re upset, take your own time out. Explain the plan to your family and let them know how you’ll handle it. Consider having a family meeting to plan that everyone takes a time out when angry. If the kids want to argue, ask them to do it outside of the house. If you and your partner are angry, go outside…but remember, it is better to take time until you get back into your thinking brain if possible. Don’t think that apologies make it better. Ask your family.
  5. Refrain from giving any unsolicited advice to anyone in your family. Yup, for some of us this is the hardest one. (Duct tape is a good option.) Instead, be curious. Listen. If you have been solving problems that belong to your child, they will seem dependent on you and ask for a lot of advice. You can offer some options if asked, but become better at being a problem-solving coach. (Teens who perceive themselves as problem solvers are safer and more competent. Giving kids solutions does not make them problem solvers.) Most importantly listen, listen, listen. Make sure you understand the problem from your child’s point of view. Refrain from trying make them see it differently. Understand that giving your kids solutions carries the underlying message that I am smart and you are not. 

“Safety is not the absence of threat, it is the presence of connection,” according to inspiring psychiatrist, Gabor Mate. Recognize the importance of creating your own internal calm. Set the goal of listening deeply and speaking honestly without judgment, shame or blame toward yourself or them.

  1. Lean into joy, gratitude and playfulness. The protective factor of a loving parent requires more than presence (although that matters). In order to feel positively attached – that is feeling seen, safe, soothed, and secure – children need us to do better than show up. They also need to sense that we enjoy being with them and indeed, take delight in them. In order to do that, we need a calm brain. 

Well known sociologist Brené Brown has declared that joy is the most terrifying and difficult emotion we experience. Many of us won’t soften into moments of joy because it makes us feel vulnerable about losing this happiness. And vulnerability is something we work to avoid. If I allow the tenderness of my child’s laughing face deeply into my heart, I will have to feel terror about harm being done to them or losing this connection. In fact, there is no way to guard against loss. Minimizing our feelings of joy only reinforces the naturally negative bias of the human brain. Those people who were able to lean into joy did so by practicing gratitude regularly. Gratitude helps us tolerate the vulnerability that comes along with really feeling those joyful moments. 

And finally, a special kind of joy that is important for kids of all ages is playfulness – just being silly, playing the fool, having fun. Playfulness relaxes the brain, opens it up to learning and increases cooperation. Make up a song to accompany potty time, laugh wholeheartedly at silly moments, have a dance party just for the fun of it. 

Playfulness, gratitude and joy are powerful and important antidotes to stress and help to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of both parents and children. 

  1. Get support. This is challenging. Stop being so strong. Excessive independence is a symptom of trauma. Ask for help from friends, family members, and professionals. Keep asking every person in your life, and beyond, until you get it. Don’t go it alone. Your child is unique but your struggles aren’t. Leaning into your support system is a sign of strength; collective strength, family strength, community strength, the kind of strength we want for our children. 

Authors:

Ruth Freeman, LCSW, David Hanscom, MD, and Aaron Weintraub, MS have come together to answer the hard questions about what science tells us parents can do to address the current pediatric mental health crisis. They are on a mission to translate research into the practical tools that parents need right now to raise flourishing children in difficult times.

  • David is an orthopedic complex spinal deformity surgeon who quit after three decades of successful surgical practice to focus on teaching people how to break loose from the grip of chronic mental and physical pain. His work developed into a book called “Back in Control: A Surgeon’s Roadmap Out of Chronic Pain.” Based on that book, he created a self-directed action plan program called the “DOC (Direct Your Own Care) Journey.” His work is based on what science and clinical literature has revealed to be the root cause of the pervasive issues of mental and physical pain affecting individuals and families.
  • Ruth is a parenting educator and clinical social worker who founded Peace At Home Parenting Solutions that connects parents and caregivers directly with the experts they need to eliminate aggression visited upon children in their homes and build peaceful, positive and joyful families. She has taught parenting education for over three decades and is the lead author on the University of Connecticut parenting curriculum, “Building Family Futures.”
  • Aaron, Peace At Home Chief Product Officer, who is also the founder of Kids Cooperate. Aaron has almost thirty years of experience in supporting families of children with special needs. His approach is focused on recognizing strengths in the child and family system.

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